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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — An early start time may lead to elementary school students getting less sleep, but it has little to no effect on their educational outcomes, according to a new study. What’s more, researchers say the effects of sleep deprivation are less harmful to elementary school students than middle or high school students.

One reason elementary school students start earlier is to stagger start times for transportation. However, it remains poorly understood how an early school schedule affects their ability to do well in class. Previous research has focused on middle school and high school students, which found that later start times worked better for them.

“We found earlier start times for elementary schoolers do not have the same negative effects as they do for middle and high schoolers,” explains Sarah Crittenden Fuller, research associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) at the University of North Carolina, in a media release. “For elementary students, earlier start times predicted only a slight increase in absences and a small increase in math scores.”

Schools in California have taken educational research to reorganize their school schedule. Some school districts in certain states have opted to start middle school and high school at a later date.

“Our findings offer reassurance that moving elementary schools to earlier start times is unlikely to harm the educational outcomes of the youngest students,” says co-author Kevin C. Bastian, Director of EPIC and research associate professor in the Department of Public Policy.

Early school start times do affect disadvantaged groups

In one of the two studies conducted by both researchers, they tracked the educational outcomes of all public, non-charter elementary schools in North Carolina from 2011-2012 through 2016-2017. They also focused on an urban district that had changed its elementary and high school start times in 2016-2017. The analysis involved looking for a relationship between start times and absences, suspension, and standardized exam scores.

One of the team observations was that school start times hurt traditionally disadvantaged groups the most. Changing to earlier start times also disrupted their learning the most.

“To the extent that districts can change start times to bring middle and high school start times in line with the science on adolescent sleep, this may help close achievement gaps,” adds Fuller. “In addition, traditionally disadvantaged groups may benefit most from supports that schools and districts can provide to address disruptions in childcare and transportation created by a change in start times.”

The study is published in the American Educational Research Association’s journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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